How do you stop a 15,000-pound elephant? Scientists are now researching just that, and the answer may come from an unlikely, yet natural, source – honeybees. With the incidence of human-elephant conflict on the rise in Kenya, where Savannah elephants frequently raid and destroy valuable food crops, researchers are experimenting with beehive fences – wooden fences adorned with honeybee hives.
Why Beehive Fences?
Based on a casual observation that elephants avoid trees with beehives, scientists conducted a pilot study using unoccupied beehive fences as a deterrent. The results were so promising that the study has now been expanded with active hives, and may hold promise for ending the long-term conflict in a natural way that will protect both the elephants and the crops.
Status of African Elephants
While African elephant population estimates range from 470,000 to 690,000, individual populations in some areas are endangered, and the overall population status is determined as “vulnerable.” The savannah elephant, one of two subspecies, thrives in the plains and bushlands of eastern and southern Africa. In Kenya, located in east-central Africa, there is a growing concern for the protection of the species, as farmers often shoot or poison the elephants to protect their crops.
Testing the Beehive Fences Theory
The research was born from an observation in 2002 by zoologist Fritz Vollrath of the University of Oxford, that elephants avoided trees that contained beehives. Using this knowledge, Vollrath and a group of colleagues, along with support from Save the Elephants, enlisted the cooperation of two local farmers whose crops were often raided by elephants. They conducted a pilot study that involved building wooden fences strewn with empty honeybee hives around one side of the test property. The control farm, in close proximity, was left unfenced.
The results were very promising. Over the course of the six-week study, a total of 38 individual elephants raided the property with beehive fences in seven separate raids. This compared to the unfenced property, where 95 individuals raided that field on 13 different occasions. Using the logic that occupied hives should be even more of a deterrent, the study has been expanded to include 1,700 meters of active beehive fencing. Not only it is hoped that this will further deter the elephants, but it will provide local villages with good supplies of nutrient-rich honey as well.
Although it is not known for sure why elephants are so weary of bees, it is likely that once elephants are stung on the most vulnerable parts of the bodies – around the eyes and inside their trunks, they remember it forever. This anti-bee conditioning, grounded in the endearing characteristic of an elephant’s lifelong memory, may have paved the way for one of the most effective, natural pesticides currently in use – beehive fences.